Luxury, Design & China

Insights from Tim Shepherd founder of Design Practice
“Three Wise Monkeys”


[box]IPSOS: What is your viewpoint on the experience of luxury from a design point of view as it applies to China?[/box]

TIM: In China there is a continuing and exciting learning curve on the definition of what luxury is. With a country so rich in heritage and culture, it is now at the start of another stage of this long history, as it continues to develop and reinvent itself. I think over recent years it’s been very much more iconic, highly recognised international brands that have been linked to luxury more than say bespoke, couture style brands and companies. As much as you’ll see the global brands continuing to grow in China, that’s normal, you’d expect that as an expected consumer pattern, we are experiencing clients looking for the “unique” rather than just high level and high expense. For instance, art: at one time it was seen as just a case of collecting, now it’s a case of supporting new artists and investing in their future.

A real luxury is one where you spend for emotional and personal reasons not just ownership and status. With Fashion you buy luxury from brands like LV, Channel, etc but they are the new high street in China, accessible for the price of a lipstick or a wallet. True Luxury Brands like Bentley who made only 7,000 cars worldwide and 1,800 delivered to China; they are not common products.

I also know there is still very much a requirement that products come from China, not just because of legislation but also because of National Pride. They are looking inward as well and I think the development of their own luxury brands is going to be interesting to watch. Historically, it’s been about mass-market production, whereas now I think we will start to read and then see about the smaller scale. The younger generation of wealthy Chinese are very much looking at, “What can I buy in China that is designed by Chinese?” And quite rightly so and therefore this will impact globally. There will be smaller scale quality and design led Chinese brands we will be starting to buy as they get exposure.

[box]IPSOS: You say that your clients want things that are unique. Can you expand?[/box]

TIM: This has always been the case at the true Luxury end of the Market. It’s in all our DNA -who does not like getting a hand written note from a loved one just addressed to us? We’re very much seeing that rather than just a shopping list; it’s a requirement for the bespoke purchases.

Having worked for more than 20 years in the luxury end of the market and with various nationalities, eventually it comes down to uniqueness. It’s like buying a Rolls Royce and having it coachbuilt [a term meaning customised] rather than just picking a model in a showroom. That is what we are seeing in our work with our clients: they seek the uniqueness of possession and the designs we create for them, which actually is a true luxury in this age as it was say in the early 20th Century in Europe.

Luxury has ended up being a byword for perception of wealth. We can all afford luxury now, some more than others, but the word if over used. Like a bottle of champagne and it’s been in the reach of many more people than it was even a generation ago. You can buy it in 7 Eleven!

[box]IPSOS: With the uniqueness that they want are the clients coming up with their own concepts or is it still collaboration between your company and the client? Obviously a lot of wealthy Chinese have been educated abroad or lived abroad. So this uniqueness they are looking at, are they trying to combine elements of east and west or what do you seeing in the uniqueness they want.[/box]

TIM: That is exactly the point, if they know what they want, they can go to a shop, showroom, boutique and buy it. All creative disciplines should deliver the unexpected, unusual, innovative at all levels of the market. Otherwise there would be no need for designers like me. I think the whole “East meets West” thing is slightly over used, and too easy for the media to tag on to work across these two historic divides. Too much of a buzzword especially for certain designers (No names!). It’s much more of a global style now, especially for cultured clients and designers alike.

These educated Chinese you’re describing; I think it’s more than just fusing together perhaps the better of two cultures. It’s a true cultured approach to living life. Whereas I think it’s a more global culture they are buying into. Our clients are very much educated, well read and they see products that they’re interested in. If someone is truly there, they are living Intercontinental, they are living in different cities and places and the luxury they take between them will reflect a global design. Chinese style is influencing it rather than it being a fusion.

Look at fashion style points and decorating styles, it’s all about the DNA. There is so much more depth to Chinese designs that most people known as yet. I think there is still an expectation that we will come up with something that is unique and different for them and the collaboration comes from dialogue and delivery of desire. Sometimes it manifests itself in a product that you then collaborate together on, other times it’s all the designer, and joyfully the times when a clients introduces you to something new. You take something for instance like a chandelier or a purchase of a piece of sculpture. They may have an input into that, they may even have idea but ultimately they are looking to you for a solution and sourcing it. I’m finding my Chinese clients want more European style at the moment as they see it as understated and elegant.

[box]IPSOS: What are the key aspects when designing for luxury in regards to the Chinese market?[/box]

TIM: The key elements start with having good knowledge of what is available and also being aware culturally of the approach to luxury. It is different. I’ve designed in 28 countries and they’re all different. Culturally there is different ways of how wealth is displayed. We’re all different in the way we approach purchasing or even the process, you have to be very mindful of that.

The Chinese are very careful in their approach to their purchases, I think it’s very much the element of the collaboration that exists. There are excellent and more upcoming Chinese designers on a global level, so they don’t have to be working with the Western designers to achieve a global level of design in their own homes, hotels or businesses. The other elements they buy into are your ability to achieve, introducing global product ranges, products and techniques they may have not seen. It is the responsibility of a designer to be very aware of what is available around the world rather than just perhaps the country where they operate most of the time.

If you look at hotel groups in China that are very established, Shangri-La is a great hotel, but if you look at Europe the great hotels are more individually designed. They are not all the same style, or look. How do achieve the top level of design? By making it bespoke but still part of an international brand. Chanel is a really great example, twenty years ago it was struggling, its average age of its customer was in their 50s, but they re-educated people about their brand. We are beginning to encourage our clients to do that, have one off hotels, join that elite set of hotels. Not the just the tallest, the longest, but stylish and become elegant not just glitzy. Being stylish never goes out of fashion. Think Audrey Hepburn sipping champagne from a coupe dressed in Givenchy rather than a super model getting off a badly designer yacht after a party sponsored by a vodka company.

[box]IPSOS: It’s widely stated that China accounts for a large percent of global luxury sales in terms of fashion and design. On a mass-market level how does that affect design?[/box]

TIM: It does and will continue to be an influence as this happens on a practical level as much as anything. If you’re looking at fashion, for instance, obviously in shape and style there are still differences. On a design level we have to just look at making sure that the elements that are important to Chinese culture are reflected in some of the elements of the design, but I think that’s quite the fashion at the moment anyway.

This is normal, the consumer will ultimately drive the product. However when it comes to luxury there is always rooms for the innovators. With design using Chinese (and Asia as a whole) into a design you see it everywhere in the world now, you almost take it for granted. But I think there are practical elements on delivery. You know the restrictions we find on working in China on imports are hugely relevant to what products you might specify. On a fashion level it is easier because they have representation and ownership that is Chinese within that brand.

When it comes to furnishings and interiors it’s much more difficult. I don’t think this is an area where many of the global leaders have set up great infrastructure in China yet and are able to deliver their products. It’s almost impossible for some luxury brands to do it, because of the cost. I do

however have a plan, (but sorry cannot tell you at the moment). It will happen over the next few years but we find, especially with our hotel clients, it to be quite a struggle sometimes to really use the world market to bring that level of luxury into a 5 star hotel brand. If you look at the global luxury market using hotels as a measure, it accounts for more than 50% of all money spent in the defined luxury market, way more than fashion. So it’s actually a very important sector.

[box]IPSOS: When did Three Wise Monkeys first enter China? What projects has Three Wise Monkeys completed in China.[/box]

TIM: The first time I started working in China was about five years ago when I was asked to advise on some very small projects. An advisory role to friends of ours who were from China that just wanted some input on their projects. This however gave us a great insight without launching ourselves into the market. The two major projects we are working at the moment in China are in Ningbo and Guangzhou. They are two 5-star luxury hotels for Langham Hospitality Group. LHG is a relatively young group and we’re really enjoying working with them, as they are a truly exciting group of brands with more luxury items in the hotel sector. It’s about the bespoke nature of the hotel, but also the service elements they make a difference. When we worked on the new Langham Club for their Langham Hotel in Hong Kong, they flew in a lady for a London butlers training academy for their staff to increase their service skills but also knowledge. They trained them not just about the different champagnes and wines, but also etiquette, attire and how they hold themselves as hosts as much as staff.

They are two different hotels in look and style, although they are the same brand. The Langham Place in Guangzhou is much more focused on a certain type of client, more government, more industry, whereas the one in Ningbo is part of the cultural district. We have an art gallery we’re designing alongside the hotel to accommodate part of the Food & Beverage operation. There’s a new concert hall opposite us being built at the same time. They are very different visual products and very contrasting, but both luxury in their definition and within the framework of the hotels brand. Both of those projects are representing the Langham Place brand but also the wishes of the actual owners, who are obviously Chinese. It is our job to make sure we create an international style, but again we are still faced with the issue of products not being available in China or difficult to import because of taxation, regulation or concern. To create luxury style you have to use products from around the world. It’s the same as in Europe not using product in China, you want to be able to have that ability to use the best products available at the best prices globally.

[box]IPSOS: This work that you have mentioned with The Langham, you also worked on the Langham in Hong Kong. Can you expand?[/box]

TIM: Our first project there was on their club lounge for them, which was the first part of the hotel to be refurbished in a decade. It was extremely well received, winning an award in China from the Rich List, ironically as the best business lounge. The fact it does not look like a business lounge is its best attribute. I think what we delivered there, was quintessentially European in style, but I think we introduced some elements to it with very much a focus of it being Hong Kong – elements that are definitely very identifiable of a club lounge within a Hong Kong hotel but heavily influenced by a European Style.

[box]IPSOS: Congratulations on that award.[/box]

TIM: Thank you. It was good. The hotel was very pleased that they won it.

[box]IPSOS: During the 2008 Olympics, China’s Beijing National Stadium or more commonly known as The Bird’s Nest was seen as a wonderful piece of the Olympics. However it was designed by a Swiss architecture firm. Is there a reason why you believe the contract was not given to a Chinese architecture firm?[/box]

TIM: It’s difficult to 100% define that. I think quite often you’re seen as a badge when you are hired as a European architect or a Western designer or architect. You’re almost seen as a luxury item yourself and perhaps that’s part of the reason. Perhaps they realize there are a lot of Chinese architects involved in that scheme on the infrastructure, they just wanted to have some halo buildings designed by a company outside of China to show that they were being international. I can understand that, not just from a design perspective but also as a commercial perspective for something as important as an international event like the Olympics. It’s a bit like the Shanghai Expo in 2010 that was an international effort, not just because it was Expo but because there were so many architectural designs used to create pavilions. We’re working with a couple of practices in China at the moment and there is incredible talent there. I think from a volume perspective there are so many qualified designers and architects coming through to train in China and abroad, but I think that will change. In another 10 to 15 years there will be many more leading Chinese practices that will do the buildings because they will be working naturally globally.

[box]IPSOS: Are there any key elements in design that differ with your clients in greater China than with your Western clients?[/box]

TIM: Mainly practical elements. I think style-wise people can be affected no matter where they are from. They can be influenced because they visited somewhere, read a book, listened to a friends watched a movie. We certainly see many clients in Europe who want a certain style, that have nothing to do with European heritage. Generally they are practical elements. If you look at hotels, when we come to the back of house, designing a kitchen for a hotel in China is very different to designing one in Europe. The cooking processes are different. The approach to dining as well, with having many more private dining rooms rather than large format open spaces. So I think there are elements, but you know again that happens in every country that you work in, there’s always local custom and traditions, local requirements. As a designer you should be used to dealing with that anyway. It’s more interesting to be designing like that because you’re still learning and exploring.

When it comes to residential, I see less of a difference when I work with different nationalities than I do in the commercial sector. I think people generally are looking for homes designed around their lifestyle. Lifestyle drives the interior design rather than say 100% cultural references. I don’t think the void is as big as perhaps people think it is, perhaps it’s written that way, rather than in reality.

[box]IPSOS: For another generation of Chinese, that is not the young Chinese, the older Chinese who were born prior to 1979, a lot of them have made their wealth. Comparing the new money of China, the youth that have the money and the old China, the generation that has just gotten it, do you also see the same differences or is more practicality?[/box]

TIM: No. I think there probably is a difference from a generational point of view. I think the slightly older Chinese money is the same as old money anywhere in the world. It’s probably more conservative in its approach to any projects. I think it’s not necessarily a Chinese thing; it’s very much an old money thing. It’s the way you approach. You’re protective over your investments. Whereas I think more, the newer money, as is elsewhere, it’s much more about show, much more about people seeing what you have.

But again I think that’s on a tipping point at the moment. Whereas the old money, it’s their children who are coming in and taking over companies, so you’ve got new youth with the old money – certainly with some of the companies we’re working with, where it’s much more low-key in its approach. It is much more long term in the way that a traditional Chinese family would approach any form of family business or for that matter a European old money family. You’ll always have people who will make money and that’s not just a nationality thing. That’s just people who ride the trend: oil, you name it, people who will make money, they’ll spend it because they won’t be able to view legacy in the same way. The thing that comes through much more on the Chinese front, is the long term family approach to ownership, property development, etc. and it’s the core culture in Asia generally, which I feel very at home with.

[box]IPSOS: Do you have any other comments in terms of design China that you might want to give?[/box]

TIM: Personally and practically I wish there was a way we could bring in products from overseas are resolved and not as heavily taxed. If the product does not exist in China, it’s very hard when you try to bring it in. Therefore the overall design is then affected. I’m all for buying locally, it’s environmentally responsible and I think also trying to use the best available in that country is a requirement of a good designer, but often you do need to bring in things from elsewhere.

When a new product and technique is introduced, you see new things and that will ultimately mean other designers down the line will be inspired by them and ultimately carry into their work. I just don’t mean copying, I mean influenced, that’s important to say. I think unfairly a lot of times, western companies don’t want their products in China because they know it will be copied and it will become less for that. That’s got to change. Western companies have to realize that they need to embrace the China market, not worry about it. That will help by making their product more freely available to be purchased at the right price. That should drive the luxury market.

Luxury market generally isn’t driven by price in the way that the middle market is. True luxury really is nothing other than a value you place upon it. Henry Royce said, “the quality remains long after the price is forgotten\”. It’s a very true statement. I’d like to see China changing the worldview of it being so closed to outside because actually people I’m dealing are very open to it, they are finding it difficult bringing products to their own country.

[box]IPSOS: Can you give examples of certain products, such as flooring, lighting, or chandeliers?[/box]

TIM: It tends to be those more artisan of products, the things that really make a project special. I think its certain types of fabric, rather than heavily machined, factory driven produced. More hand finished, bespoke, smaller scale production. For instance at the Langham in Hong Kong, we used a lingerie designer to do some velvet sticking work onto leather for us, because there are very few people who can produce that high level of stitching quality. Doing that in Mainland China would be impossible. It’s adding that – that’s the real luxury.

When we’re making good furniture for hotels, you can have it produced to a certain quality of finish but some of those older techniques you will have seen and the clients will have seen traveling, you can’t quite get. But you’ve got the other end of the spectrum, you have hand silk, hand embroidered wallpaper and those are the best in the world. So there are skills sets not transferable to every category of product. If you want to use Himalayan stone just for a small area just to give an accent, it’s very difficult.

It will change because obviously people are developing in China – infrastructure projects in shopping malls, mixed use development, its homes. All of this will be driven by the inability to get products they need, and not just producing the same apartments over and over again. Which is what you see in many places in China, it’s very noticeable how similar the buildings and the architecture is, it’s more just because they need to build homes. Whereas now in the luxury end of the market, it shouldn’t be that way.

I think their approach to sustainability needs to be really focused. Working on projects in China, where building regulations are very strict in some areas and almost non-existent in other areas, I think there needs to be a very clear definition over the next ten years of what that will be. It’s not just about power; it’s also about water, being environmentally responsible. That will transfer all the way down to the architecture and building environment, right down to the furnishings and fabrics that go into homes. It’s quite an exciting time in China. They have an opportunity take to lead as well. You know, they can win. They have that chance. Whether they take it, we’ll judge it in 20 years when I’m retired.